Spelling the Dream review – slight but charming Netflix documentary

By Benjamin Lee for theguardian.com

It’s virtually impossible to group the words spelling, bee and documentary together without instantly recalling 2003’s Oscar-nominated Spellbound, a warm-hearted breakout focused on a group of smart young contenders at the 1999 Scripps national competition. It’s a comparison that those involved with Netflix’s Spelling the Dream are well aware of, with a clip-assisted callout midway, followed by parents referencing it as a regular family watch. But rather than a regurgitation of a film loved by so many, director Sam Rega is covering similar ground but from a different perspective, revisiting Scripps but highlighting the overwhelming majority of Indian American finalists.

His film starts with the historic 2019 final, which saw an unprecedented eight-way tie, notable not only for its irregularity but for the dominance of Indian Americans, who made up seven of the eight students. As the documentary depressingly reminds us, the reaction from many was one of pathetic indignation, outraged that a quintessentially American competition was being led by those wrongly considered not to be countrymen. It’s a bleak chapter in what’s mostly a pleasant and spirited, if rather slight, watch that transports us back to 2017 and the journey taken by a handful of kids from regionals to the big day. The familiar sports movie formula is interspersed with an examination of just why so many Indian American children perform highly within the competition with talking heads, including comedian Hari Kondabolu, attempting to add depth to a discussion that’s previously been mired in bitter racism.

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